There has been a strange undercurrent to Nadal’s dominance of the ATP Tour in recent months; in particular, a growing schism between fans of Nadal and fans of Federer, with seemingly no conciliatory ground in between.
As Nadal’s trophy cabinet swells, there too has been a growing adoration in media circles. Athleticism, virility, kindness, humility—these are all words that spring to the mind of the average tennis viewer that listen to or read a commentator’s obsequious remarks about the Spaniard.
Oftentimes the latter characteristic above is taken with a pinch of salt; for even the biggest tennis fan, there are only so many humble words one can withstand from the ‘great one’, often not enough vomit in the world to demonstrate one’s maturing aggravation and irritation at the phrases that resonate like clock chimes from the World No.1’s mouth in every press conference and every interview.
To paraphrase; ‘I am not the favourite’; ‘It was a very tough match, no?’; both key examples of the seemingly over-saturation of grace and humility that punctuate the Spaniard’s answers to journalists’ questions.
Surely this warrior-like competitor cannot be so sincerely lacking in confidence and self-worth off the court? The dichotomy between an on court and off-court personality has never been so distinct, ensuring that all those who doubt Nadal and his veracious nature constantly reiterate their claims of dishonesty and showmanship.
Of course, the language barrier does not help. Perhaps if Nadal were as eloquent in English as he is in Spanish, there would be little need to doubt his assiduousness and modesty.
For when a neutral reads one-off comments in news articles and magazines, one gets the impression that the humble varnish is slicked on thickly and heavily for sound-bites alone.
Yet on the day of utmost shock and disbelief in the tennis world, when Rafael Nadal was defeated on his kingdom of clay at Roland Garros in the fourth round against World No. 25 Robin Soderling, all was forgiven.
The walk away from the battlefield, with his head held high and his dutiful acknowledgement of the Philippe Chatrier crowd, were only simple actions, repeated by him many times previously; yet in this single instance they symbolised a great deal about the former king of Roland Garros, the man who had just been defeated in his kingdom.
The man really is gracious, really is genuine, truly is the epitome of sportsmanship and virtue.
Even in the aftermath of this gargantuan defeat—with the added dimension that the victor was Robin Soderling, a player with whom Nadal has a turbulent history—the Spaniard’s integrity, honesty and clarity shone through his clear disappointment like beams of sunlight piercing through dark, dappled shadows.
His acceptance of his defeat, the sheer acceptance that his ‘unprofessional’ opponent played better, was truly admirable, bearing in mind that the loss would have with no doubt come as a shock to the king of clay.
‘It was my fault, and more than—well, sure, he did well. He did very well, but I didn’t. I think I didn’t play my best tennis. I didn’t play my tennis, and for that reason I lose. That’s it. I congratulate him and keep working hard for the next tournament.’
Moreover, his press conference was interspersed with humour, a lesson that many players could learn to adopt for their interactions with the media.
When asked what Nadal would do now that his time at Roland Garros was over for another year, he replied, ‘Right now, my preparation is for the swimming pool of my house. Yes, it will give me three more days to think about preparation for Wimbledon.’
A simple way of lightening the mood, to give a semblance of reality to the situation. Even to him, there are other things in life to enjoy as well as tennis.
Poignantly, a sense of perspective from the defeated man himself was the main souvenir from the day.
‘I have to accept with the same calm when I win than when I lose. After four years I lose here, and the season continues.
‘You cannot collapse, either because you’ve won a match or because you’ve lost it. This is sport, and you can have victories or defeats. No one remembers defeats in the long run. People remember victories.
No, defeats never make you grow, but you also realize how difficult what I achieved up until today was, and this is something you need sometimes. You need a defeat to give value to your victories.’
Other sportsmen take note. This is how to act on the world stage, in victory and in defeat.